First Windham-Campbell recipients reflect on Yale’s diverse, ‘overwhelming’ literary prize

In early March 2013 writer Jonny Steinberg received a baffling, random email — one that would substantially affect his career.

A man named Michael Kelleher, claiming to represent the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, indicated that he had very important news, which he needed to share with Steinberg over the phone.

“I thought: Why did this not go to junk mail? It's clearly a 419 scam,” Steinberg said. 

Then his phone rang. It was Kelleher, who told him that he had been named an inaugural recipient of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes and would receive an unrestricted grant of $150,000 to support his writing. 

“I thought of putting down the phone but instead googled him while he was speaking, and it dawned on me that it was no hoax,” Steinberg said. “A split second later and I would have said something terrible to him.”

Steinberg was among nine recipients of the prize, a global English-language award that calls attention to literary achievement and provides writers with the opportunity to work independent of financial concerns. The 2013 prizes went to nine writers in three categories: Steinberg, Adina Hoffman, and Jeremy Scahill in nonfiction; the late James Salter, Zoë Wicomb, and Tom McCarthy in fiction; and Naomi Wallace, Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Tarell Alvin McCraney in drama.

Kelleher, the prize director, said Steinberg was not the only winner to be skeptical.

“James Salter said he needed to see something in writing,” Kelleher said, adding that every year at least one recipient believes they are being scammed during the initial call.

The 2017 prizes, and the fifth class of recipients, will be announced March 1. Eight winners, including two in poetry — a new category — will receive the dramatic phone call.

“No one had heard of me!” said Zoë Wicomb of receiving the call. “Was it a hoax, I wondered. So I received the call with disbelief, consternation, and a sense that I cannot possibly deserve such a prize. The vast sum of money was overwhelming, but most welcome. Now I could afford to be a writer.”

The inaugural winners hailed from three countries, the United States, United Kingdom, and South Africa, and ranged in age from 33 to 87. Salter, the eldest member of the inaugural class, passed away in June 2015 at age 90. The youngest member, Tarell Alvin McCraney, is nominated this year for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for “Moonlight,” a film based on one of his unproduced plays.

McCraney, who will chair the Yale School of Drama’s playwriting department beginning in July, is not the only member of the inaugural class to earn an Oscar nomination. Journalist Jeremy Scahill, a founder the investigatory news website The Intercept, was nominated for best documentary feature for “Dirty Wars,” based on his 2013 nonfiction book of the same title.

Other members of the class have claimed equally prestigious honors. For example, Stephen Adly Guirgis won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play “Between Riverside and Crazy,” and Tom McCarthy’s novel “Satin Island” was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

Donald Windham, a novelist and memoirist, established the prize with the fortune he inherited from his partner, Sandy M. Campbell. The prize was inspired by Windham’s early monetary struggles and the boon that financial independence provided to his literary career. (Windham and Campbell’s papers are housed at the Beinecke Library.)

To be considered for the prize, writers must work in English and be nominated by a group of invited nominators from across the globe. Juries in each category then review the nominations and select four finalists in each category. Finally, a nine-person selection committee chooses recipients from the list of finalists. Writers are unaware they have been nominated.

Originally, the prize was awarded to up to nine writers (three in three categories), who received $150,000. Beginning this year, up to eight writers will win the award (in four categories), and the monetary prize has been increased to $165,000.

Members of the first class of winners said that while the money was surely welcome, the prize and recognition accompanying it was the bigger reward, as it gave them confidence and inspiration.

“I'm neither a popular nor highly produced playwright in the United States, so the Windham Campbell Prize was a lifeline for me,” Naomi Wallace said. “At the time, the prize gave me much-needed fuel from the cold. More than the economic award, it was the validation that was a heat source for me to keep scrawling my plays, no matter the larger silence from mainstream American theater. It was one of the happiest days of my writing life.”

Steinberg said the most important and lasting effect of winning the prize was perhaps the least tangible.

“It gave me the confidence to believe that what I do is valuable enough to keep on at it, always, for the rest of my life, no matter the distractions and temptations that present themselves,” said Steinberg, whose book about the travails of a Somali refugee, “A Man of Good Hope,” has been adapted into a play that opened this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City.

Adina Hoffman said the prize provided her “a boost — a boost both moral and monetary.”

“That is, a vote of literary confidence in books I’d already written, which came with the financial means to help me hunker down and write the next book,” she said.

Tom McCarthy, who was a successful novelist in 2013, realized a tangible benefit from the prize.

“I’ve been able to take on a research assistant, which is very useful,” he said.

Since 2013, 35 writers representing 10 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America have received the prize.

Kelleher, the prize’s director, said he has focused on diversity — making sure that the nominators, selection committee members, jurors, and winners are diverse.

“It’s one of the most diverse literary prizes in the world,” he said. “Our attention to diversity enhances the rigor of the selection process and helps us find and reward some of the world's best writers."

As a condition of the prize, recipients must come to Yale in the fall to accept the award in person and participate in a multi-day literary festival. They give readings of their work, join panel discussions on topics relevant to their writing, and participate in college teas and other events open to both the Yale community and the general public.

The festival gives the prize recipients an opportunity to get to know one another.

“I remember the immaculate hospitality,” McCarthy said of coming to Yale. “I was also particularly taken by a set of conversations I had with Jeremy Scahill, a fellow prizewinner. I’d been working through the conjunction of media and violence in a symbolic field, and he was doing the same thing in a documentary arena.”

Hoffman, who lives in New Haven for half the year, was familiar with Yale’s campus.

“It was different somehow, and refreshing, to be there in this particular context,” she said. “I did a (college) tea and seriously enjoyed having an exchange with the serious students who came to that; I also got a kick out of the more extended conversations — both onstage and off — with the other prizewinners. The reading with everyone up there together was a particular pleasure.”

To Wicomb, the experience of coming to Yale “seemed unreal.”

“It was so exhilarating to be with the other winners, and especially to encounter the non-fiction writers whose work I did not know,” she said.

She was struck by a screening of Scahill’s film “Dirty Wars” and his address to students about American drone attacks. She was also moved by a writing workshop the prizewinners did with students at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School in New Haven, which has become an annual event during the festival.

“Both unforgettable events,” she said.

Wallace enjoyed meeting Salter, whom she described as elegant and kind.

Steinberg fondly recalled the red dress Wicomb wore to the prize ceremony.

“It was absolutely magnificent, and she wore it with extraordinary grace,” he said. “It was a genuine expression of how happy, lucky and celebratory we all felt.”

The prize’s initial recipients said they have paid attention to subsequent winners and enjoy watching as the prize has become more prominent with each passing year.

The prize’s unusual procedure and the secrecy of the process is one of the best aspects of the prize, Wicomb said.

“I watch with bated breath each year, and am cheered to see so many excellent writers being rewarded for their work,” she said. “I was particularly thrilled for Ivan Vladislavic in 2015, an outstanding South African writer whose work deserves to be better known. Also Aminatta Forna (2014) and Helon Habila (2015), ‘outsiders’ who are anything but aesthetically challenged.”

Hoffman said she is always happy to see recipients whose works she knows and respects, but finds that she is more intrigued by the prizewinners whose work is new to her.

“That’s one of the things that the prize can do, it seems to me: shine a light on the work of first-class writers the world at large hasn’t necessarily ‘discovered’ yet,” she said.